History Has Proven We Can Overcome the Dark Times in American Democracy

As the Citizens United ruling floods our elections with special interest money, politicians become wholly-owned subsidiaries of the oligarchy and voting rights are stripped away -Take heart.


Democracy has come under assault in America before, we've survived, and the nation actually became stronger for the struggle.

The year 1798, for example, was a crisis year for democracy and those who, like Thomas Jefferson, believed the United States of America was a shining light of liberty, a principled republic in a world of cynical kingdoms, feudal fiefdoms, and theocracies.

That year President John Adams pushed through Congress -- by a single vote -- the Alien and Sedition Acts, and was aggressively putting into jail newspaper editors who disagreed with him and supported Jefferson. Benjamin Franklin Bache -- Ben Franklin's grandson -- had been one of the first, as he had just published an editorial referring to the President as, "old, querulous, Bald, blind, crippled, Toothless Adams."

Then-Vice President Jefferson was wretched. He'd left town the day Adams signed the acts, as a symbolic act. He would have nothing to do with their implementation. The abuses were startling, and Adams was moving America quickly into the direction of an authoritarian, single-party rule.

Over Jefferson's angry objections, Adams had even imprisoned a member of the U.S. House of Representatives -- Matthew Lyon of Vermont -- for speaking out against Adams's Federalists' favoritism of the rich over working people.

Two weeks before the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed, June 1, 1798, as Adams was already rounding up newspaper editors and dissidents in anticipation of his coming legal authority, Jefferson sat down at his desk and, heart heavy but hopeful, put quill pen to paper to share his thoughts with his old friend John Taylor, one of his fellow Democratic Republicans and a man also in Adams cross-hairs. (Two decades later, Taylor would write down his thoughts on the issue of government in a widely-distributed book, "Construction Construed, and Constitutions Vindicated," noting that: "A government is substantially good or bad, in the degree that it produces the happiness or misery of a nation...")

Several states had gone completely over to Adam's side, particularly Massachusetts which was filled with preachers who wanted theocracy established in America, and Connecticut, which had become the epicenter of the wealthy who wanted to control the government's agenda for their own gain.

It was red states and blue states, writ large. There was even discussion of Massachusetts seceding from the rest of the nation, which had become too "liberal" (to use George Washington's term) and secular.

"It is true that we are completely under the saddle of Massachusetts and Connecticut," Jefferson wrote to Taylor, his friend and compatriot, "and that they ride us very hard, cruelly insulting our feelings, as well as exhausting our strength and subsistence. Their natural friends, the three other Eastern States join them from a sort of family pride, and they have the art to divide certain other parts of the Union, so as to make use of them to govern the whole.

"This is not new," Jefferson added, "it is the old practice of despots; to use a part of the people to keep the rest in order. And those who have once got an ascendancy and possessed themselves of all the resources of the nation, their revenues and offices, have immense means for retaining their advantage.

"But," he added, "our present situation is not a natural one." Jefferson knew that the theocrats and the rich did not represent the true heart and soul of America, and commented to Taylor about how Adams had been using divide-and-conquer politics, and fear-monger about war with France (the infamous "XYZ Affair") with some success.

"But still I repeat it," he wrote to Taylor, "this is not the natural state."

Our nation's wisest political commentator noted the problem of politics.

"Be this as it may, in every free and deliberating society, there must, from the nature of man, be opposite parties, and violent dissensions and discords; and one of these, for the most part, must prevail over the other for a longer or shorter time. Perhaps this party division is necessary to induce each to watch and delate to the people the proceedings of the other."

"But," Jefferson asked rhetorically, "will the evil stop there?"

Apparently he thought so, and his next paragraph to Taylor gives progressives a reminder for these times.

This must be our mantra, even as we work harder every day:

"A little patience," Jefferson wrote, "and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight, restoring their government to its true principles. It is true, that in the meantime, we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war, and long oppressions of enormous public debt. ... If the game runs sometimes against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost. For this is a game where principles are the stake."

Ever the optimist and the realist, Jefferson ended his letter with both hope and caution.

"Better luck, therefore, to us all, and health, happiness and friendly salutations to yourself," he closed the letter. But under his signature, Jefferson added:

"P. S. It is hardly necessary to caution you to let nothing of mine get before the public; a single sentence got hold of by the Porcupines, will suffice to abuse and persecute me in their papers for months."

It is time, now, for us to once again follow Jefferson's wise advice. Hope for the best, organize for a better America, and recognize the power and evil unleashed by oligarchs who believe that campaigns and politicians are theirs for a price, laws enriching huge international corporations at the expense of working families are acceptable, and that the ends justifies the means.

America has been through crises before, and far worse. If we retain the vigilance and energy of Jefferson -- as today we face every bit as much a struggle against the same forces that he fought -- we shall prevail.

Progressive activism has forged the path through these storms many times before. The Square Deal and Trustbusting, the New Deal, the Civil Right Movement and the Great Society – all these movements for change overcame the darkest days of America.

We can and must rally such a movement once again.

For the simple reason that, underneath it all, "this is a game where principles are the stake."

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